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A Constant Quantity

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  • A Constant Quantity

    A Constant Quantity
    what the words know
    It was a short article beneath several large, grainy photographs. The Shuttle Discovery had made an emergency landing at White Sands in New Mexico after unscheduled activity in orbit. The crew were safe. The shuttle was undamaged.

    He folded the paper and placed it on the seat beside him. The photos held his eye. They had been taken at extreme range with a powerful telephoto lens against the glare of the New Mexico desert, but the photographer had caught the moment the payload was being transferred under guard to the waiting Lockheed C5 Galaxy. Details of the steel ribbing could be made out on the polyhedron’s surface. Or maybe it was because he knew what he was looking at.

    Sitting well back with his legs stretched out, he rested his head and watched the passing city skyline through the smoked glass of the window. It was a level of luxury he decided he could develop a taste for, even if the custom brass, mahogany and plush interior was another uncomfortable reminder of that first journey.

    He turned the paper over and shrugged the memory away; focussed on the passing buildings, the apartment blocks and offices, blinds in the windows drawn against the hot afternoon sun.

    As they passed the Sorbonne, the car slowed, then stopped. Thomas looked up on the other side of the Rue des ةcoles where he could see a narrow balcony with doors open onto a dark interior. A child appeared and looked along the street, leaning out an alarming distance over the black wrought iron. An old woman appeared and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Somewhere a horn blared.

    Without turning his head, the driver spoke. “I am sorry, Monsieur Simmons. The traffic is not normally this bad.”

    “That’s all right,” said Thomas as he pulled himself out of his slouch. He was in no hurry.

    The pavements were crowded, and not just with students. He watched incuriously at first, did not worry over much when the tide of movement toward the Boulevard Saint Michel turned and began to flow the other way. It was when silence descended that he leaned forward.

    “Would you mind taking a look?”

    Whilst the driver made his way between the gridlocked vehicles, Thomas picked up the phone and tried several numbers.

    Pale-faced, the driver leaned in through his door. “It looks suspiciously like a new fracture,” he said. “Running along the length of the Boulevard Saint Michel.”

    “Damn!” said Thomas. “Are you sure?”

    “I was in London in ’72.”

    Thomas nodded. “Explains this,” he said, holding up the handset. “No connection.”

    The crowds had thinned and the silence was solidifying.

    “Damn,” Thomas repeated. His fingers drummed. “Do you have family?”

    “Oui, Monsieur.”

    “This side of the Boulevard?”


    “Get back to them. Get them away.”

    Thomas took the car keys, sat thinking with the grateful smile of the driver fading in the hot summer street.

    The Rue des Ecoles was long deserted by the time Thomas retrieved his kit from the boot of the Bugatti Galibier and changed. Hefting his kitbag onto his shoulder, he made his way past Le Champo where a Tarkovsky retrospective had been playing. Alexander Kaidanovsky stared out from the poster. Thomas knew just how he felt. Still. Clouds. Silver linings. And all that.

    At the junction he looked left, saw the familiar hazing in the air tailing off. To the right it grew stronger and he nodded to himself. The caldarium at the Musée de Cluny would be as good a starting point as any.

    dead things
    A piece of ancient litter had been pried out of an obscure corner by the wind and drifted scratchily across the cobbles in front of their table. Thomas twisted the bottle and the cork came loose. Pigeons watched as Charlie opened the hamper. She took out a large bag of seed and scattered it across the steps. Others swooped down from the façade behind them. Thomas poured the sparkling wine, pleased with the way it caught the early morning sun in the unusually clear air.

    “It looks untouched from up here,” said Charlie.

    Thomas looked up from the hamper. Opéra and Enclos-St-Laurent were spread out before them all the way to the river. Snow on the rooftops, the absence of smoke and contrails, the absence of tourists on the steps, but she was right. If you turned round, the mummified corpse of the nun behind the locked railings was a bit of a giveaway. He sat down and pulled his collar a bit higher.

    “Cheers,” he said.

    “So what brings you here?”

    “Apart from you?”

    Charlie lifted her champagne flute and looked at him over the top before sipping, one eyebrow raised. The chime of glass rang clearly and spooked the pigeons who fluttered up to the façade of the basilica. She sat in her folding canvas chair wearing her old familiar greatcoat, the flaps of her hat loose over her ears, fingerless gloves fraying.

    “I never left, Charlie.”

    A frown as she set he empty glass on the table, gloved hand over the top to say she’d had enough.

    “You used the fracture.”

    Thomas shrugged. “What else?”

    The frown was still there. “Risky.”

    “From you?”

    Charlie shook her head. “I’m not having that argument again, Tom.”

    No, he thought. Because you can never win.

    Her reckless streak annoyed him. She took such risks because, he knew, she did not care if she died, would not share the demon she could not exorcise. And it broke his heart. But he also knew there was nothing he could do. He had tried. To the point of destroying their… friendship. He suppressed a sigh. He wasn’t going to do it again. It had taken such a long time to rebuild.

    They stared out across the rooftops of the deserted city at the edge of fragile territory. She dared many things, but could not get too close because she had seen him die too many times already. After all the years that had passed, the pain of losing those she had loved was still raw; the wounds still bled.

    She reached across the table and laid her hand on his left arm. He covered it with his right hand. For a moment their fingers laced and he was content.

    An evil wind climbed the bitter steps of their memories.

    “Grant me a starless hour,” he murmured. “Somewhere to drag this hunger.”

    The west was becoming choked with clouds, blotches of sullen yellow in the grey. Charlie cooked eggs in a pan on a small spirit stove, brewed coffee, served rolls and marmalade.

    When they had finished, climbed together to firmer ground, the bright morning had been completely swallowed by the promise of snow.

    Charlie shuddered as she packed the hamper. “It’s moving out of focus. All the phantoms—”

    A distant explosion lay skeletal echoes across the ruins.

    Thomas could contain himself no longer. “The hours. After you’ve gone. Leaden.”

    “There is a last even of last times,” she replied. “Even in this ghost-forsaken world. Our peace will be in the fading mist in a time when we will no longer pace the long shifting thresholds, walk the places in between.”

    They stood at the top of the steps awhile.

    “Where to now?” he asked.

    Charlie began to fix the hamper to the rack on her bicycle. “Section 12, Avenue Transversale, Cimetière du Montparnasse. Nothing else to be done while I’m here. You?”


    “It’s as good a direction as any.”

    Beneath the darkening sky they embraced. Thomas didn’t want to let go. He held her a moment longer with his eyes. Idle flakes of snow fell as Charlie pedalled off along the Rue Azaïs and turned up the Rue Saint-Eleuthère. When he could no longer hear the rattle of her bike on the cobbles, he lifted the Very pistol from the table and fired a flare.

    the sun shone
    Frankfurt, 3rd May 1937

    My dearest Charlotte,

    You asked me once how it all began for me. I never did tell you. Something happened. Something was always happening.

    I don’t know why I should have thought of this now, but as there is a good half hour before we take to the air I thought I would write it down and catch the post.

    Much of my time in those days was spent on my bicycle. I was a small, skinny child and not much in favour with my contemporaries. Bicycling was a great escape and a chance to have adventures.

    I still have nightmares about it, focussed on that sphere. They always start as that day started, sunny and calm. Such weather still makes me nervous.

    I had bicycled down to the beach that day as the tide was out and there would be space to race about. When I got there, something unusual was going on. Several men stood looking at a large object on the waterline. I made my way down in time follow them part way up the beach. They were staggering under the weight of something and one, a wild looking chap with untidy hair and a beard was dragging a chain.

    Losing interest in them, I turned and went back down to the large object from which they had come. It was a sphere. Rather, it was spherical on the inside, but the outside was a regularly faceted polyhedron. On the top, I could make out what appeared to be a hatch.

    Curiosity got the better of me. I propped my bike against it and clambered up. The whole thing was like a series of windows, so when I popped my head in the entrance, I could see the interior quite clearly. It was a mess. Tins of food, blankets, clothing, all in a big heap on the bottom.

    Set into the inner surface there were panels with switches that looked intriguing, but I don’t expect anything would have happened if I hadn’t lost my balance and slid right in, crashing on to the pile of stuff on the bottom.

    I wasn’t worried. The circular entrance was in easy reach. Once in, of course, I began to poke around, absorbed by everyday items in their unusual surrounding. I had no idea what the sphere was at that point, but it didn’t seem to matter.

    There was no way of knowing how long I spent in there, rooting around, but it was clearly long enough for the tide to start back in. I had lost myself in a copy of Tit-Bits that was lying in there, much creased. When I finished and stood up, the sphere, now afloat, rolled. The hatch cover, with a horrible inevitability, slid into the entrance and sealed it.

    Suddenly worried, I tried to push it open, but succeeded only in making the sphere roll about in the water. I clung to the interior of the hatch and it turned in its thread, tightening all the while in what was probably the only fortuitous episode of the whole sorry affair.

    When it stopped turning, sealing me in, I lost my grip and fell. Of all the directions I could have gone, it was perhaps inevitable that I should fall against the panel of switches. For a happy second I thought nothing had happened. Then shutters moved swiftly across each glass panel shutting out the light. The sphere lurched and I fell.

    At the time, I thought it had rolled in the water again. I was soon to learn otherwise.

    I have travelled to many places, my dear Charlotte, seen many strange things and had some remarkable adventures, but I have encountered nothing that has scared me half as much as that moment when I realized I was weightless and the view through the one open panel was full of stars.

    They are beginning to prepare for departure, so I must leave the rest of the tale for another time, or maybe as we travel. I will be in Lakehurst on the 6th and will travel on to New York. Once I am settled I will send a wire.

    I am already counting the days before my return. Take care.
    With all my love

    the long sonata
    “That old tale? That ain’t nothin but a… one of those legends.” He placed the glass of beer on the counter. “You be wantin anythin to eat?”

    “Don’t touch the meatloaf.” The voice floated out of the cool shadow of the interior.

    She turned on the stool and peered into the gloom.

    “You don’t want to listen to Wilson,” the barman said, placing a well-worn menu card next to the half empty glass.

    “And it ain’t no legend,” came the voice again.

    The barman shook his head and wrote down her order. “He’ll spin any old tale for a drink.”

    She smiled. “A small price. Set him one up.” The barman nodded. “Steak sandwich?” she called.

    The old Paiute stood and sidled out of the booth where he had been sitting, smoothing down his jacket and straightening the scarf at his neck. The creases on his face re-arranged themselves as he smiled. Lifting the glass, he saluted his benefactor before draining the liquid in one go. Charlie looked into his eyes, saw the smile lingering there, lifted a finger.

    “I’m a northern Paiute,” he said when they were settled back in the booth with full glasses and their sandwiches.

    “Any relation?”

    He sat a little straighter. “It’s not something you talk about loudly.”

    Charlie nodded. “So why are you in the south?”

    Wilson shrugged, helped himself to one of the steak sandwiches. “After Wounded Knee…” He shrugged again. Charlie decided it wasn’t worth pushing. Wilson busied himself with the food.

    “So,” she said when he had finished. “Groom Silver Mines.”

    “My grandfather. He worked there. As a water boy. It was from him I learned the story, when I was a child.”

    “Tell me.”

    “You been up there?”

    “As far as you can get, these days.”

    Wilson nodded.

    “Hot place. Dry. Scrub.”

    It was Charlie’s turn to nod. She had gone as far as the first ring of sensors, smiled for the cameras that homed in on her, come back to town.

    “They lived in basic cabins up along the creek. Could see for miles from up there. All the way down to what they call Groom Lake now. One of the boys saw him first. Saw his dust. Crossing the south west corner of the alkali flats.”

    “When was this.”

    “Early summer. 1917. They watched a whole day. A truck drove down the next morning, my grandfather sitting in back.”

    Charlie waited patiently as other memories hijacked Wilson’s narrative. She was no stranger to that. The old man sighed, pulled a pouch of tobacco from a pocket. Charlie declined the offer and watched as his dark brown arthritic fingers shaped a cigarette. He sucked flame and blew smoke at the ceiling.

    “You got a phone?” he asked.

    Charlie took her Motorola from a pocket and handed it across the table. He punched some numbers, listened, spoke a few words of Numu, and handed the phone back.

    “When they got down to the valley floor,” he said, picking up the story as if there had been no break, “they saw this man. He was wearing an old canvas duster, a Winchester ’94 slung on his back, muzzle down. Like some old time cowboy. Bareheaed and sun-crazy, he was pulling a kind of sled with a heavy chest strapped to it. Had to pry the rope from his blistered, bleeding hands.”

    Childhood memories danced up her spine on electric toes. “Where had he come from?”

    “Yucca Flat, he claimed. Not far over the other side of Papoose Mountain where the mine was. Nothing there in those days but desert. Nothing much more there these days, unless you count all those damned craters.”

    The table had been cleared and fresh glasses of beer delivered. They sipped in silence, Charlie sensing there was more. Two cops settled at the bar with cherry pie and coffee. The fans turned slowly.

    When a motorbike approached, Wilson rose with a signal to Charlie to stay put. She watched as he left the bar, taking a hat from the stand on his way out and settling it on his head as he pushed through the door. He returned several minutes later with an old cigar box.

    “Hope that wasn’t young Poongatse on that bike, Wilson,” said one of the cops as someone roared off along the highway.

    “She’s more sense than that, Cob.”

    “First I heard.”

    Wilson smiled, hanging his hat and settling back opposite Charlie. He opened the cigar box. “She’ll be long gone before fat boy finish his pie,” he said softly and began sorting through the contents. “They put him in a tent, got him water, wrapped his hands, watched over him until the sun fever left him. My grandfather was there, gave him water. He was there the morning the man put his coat back on, slung the rifle over his shoulder, picked up the rope and began dragging the sled again. They watched as he went into the mountain. One of the mines. A short working my grandfather said. Stable. But the seam had run out very quickly. He went into the mountain pulling his sled. He never came out.”

    He finished rummaging in the box and produced an old, creased photograph. A man lying on a camp bed, a great metal chest resting on a sled on the ground beside him. Even through all the dust and pain, through the flaking burned flesh, she recognized Thomas. Anywhere, any time, she would know that face. She also recognized what was on the sled.

    on the nothing new
    Walking away from the simple grey granite gravestone where all the flowers had long since died and been scattered by the wind, she went in search of the endgame. By the time she reached the Rue des ةcoles it was raining. Most of the abandoned cars were locked, but the rear door of the Bugatti Galibier opened when she tried the handle. She slid inside and shut the door, pushing a newspaper to one side.

    As it slid to the floor, a headline caught her eye. Another crisis. Always another crisis. China accusing the USA of resuming underground nuclear tests. Strong denial from the White House. Another, older paper caught her eye. Several large, grainy photographs taken at extreme range with a powerful telephoto lens against the glare of the New Mexico desert.
    "By means of our myths and legends we maintain a sense of what we are worth and who we are. Without them we should undoubtedly go mad."
    MM - Mother London